By John Ikani
The US Africa Command has expressed worries that the arrival of Russian mercenaries – known as Wagner Group – in Mali to support the West African country’s military fight against jihadist groups would leave the country’s situation worse.
Commander of the United States Africa Command, Army General Stephen Townsend made this known during a briefing on Wednesday at the US Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub.
Transcripts of the interview obtained by newsmen of Friday quoted Townsend as saying he can confirm that the mercenaries have arrived in Mali despite denial by Mali’s military leaders.
He said with the arrival of the mercenaries, the same scenario played out in Sudan, the Central African Republic and Mozambique may repeat itself in Mali.
What the US Africa Command is saying
“We have observed the Malian junta bring Russian mercenaries into their country. They’ve invited them. They continue to deny this in public. But my information is pretty clear that they have brought in Wagner. We think they are on the ground in several hundred and expanding to some unknown number, and I have watched this Wagner – this is not the Russian military we’re talking about.
“These are mercenaries that happen to be from Russia. And I have watched this group of actors in Syria. I’ve watched them in Libya. I’ve watched them in Sudan. I’ve watched them in the Central African Republic. And I’ve watched them in Mozambique. And they never leave the situation better than they found it. My experience is they will leave it much worse and they will also exploit the country at an expense.
“The international partners there are providing support to Mali at no expense to the Government of Mali, but that’s not the case with Wagner. So I don’t have a lot of time for Wagner. I think they are a bad presence and they are not going to contribute to stability and security in Mali in the long run.
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In July, President Emmanuel Macron announced a drawdown of French troops in the Sahel region by early 2022.
French troops have been present in Mali since 2013, when they intervened to force out armed fighters from power in the country’s north. That operation was later extended to other countries in an effort to stabilise the broader Sahel region that includes Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Facing a fight with seemingly no end in sight, President Macron announced in July plans to reduce the 5,100 French troops under its Barkhane mission by about half and close down French bases in northern Mali in a bid to initiate a wider European effort.
The drawdown came as anti-French sentiment has become widely popular among Malians who accuse Paris of failing to contain the ever-growing violence and pursuing a hidden agenda in the country.
Malian officials, meanwhile, have accused France of abandoning their country with its “unilateral” decision to withdraw troops.
France has said that Malian forces are ready to take over in fighting the insurgency in northern Mali. Macron promised African leaders in a meeting in July that France will continue to help fight groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
Macron was due to raise concerns over the Wagner Group in a meeting with Mali’s new interim president Assimi Goita. However, this trip was cancelled for reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Goita took power in June in Mali’s second military coup within the space of a year.